Early Life Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, where he spent his difficult childhood. His mother died while he was young, and his father neglected him. When he was sixteen years old he left Geneva. After traveling throughout northern Italy and returning for a time to Switzerland, he settled in Paris during the early 1740s. In Paris he became acquainted with many other French philosophes, notably Denis Diderot (1713–1784), the editor of the celebrated Encyclopedic. Rousseau’s early interest was music, but by the late 1750s he had turned to philosophy and politics, after winning an essay competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. In 1758 he left Paris for rural life on a friend’s country estate near Montmorency.
Writings. During the 1750s and 1760s Rousseau produced his best-known books, including his Lettre à d’Alembert (Letter to d’Alembert, 1758), Julie: ou, la nouvelle Heloise (Julie, or, The New Heloise, 1761), Du Contrat social (On the Social Contract, 1762), and Emile (1762). Critical of religion and government, On the Social Contract and Emile angered the French monarchy, and Rousseau was exiled. He traveled to Switzerland, where his books had also offended authorities, who had ordered his arrest. Fleeing to England, he remained there until 1767, when he returned to France and lived under the protection of powerful friends until his death in 1778.
Marriage. Rousseau had a series of liaisons with women who came from various social classes and who were either much younger or older than he, and he did not marry until 1768, when he was wed to Therese le Vasseur, a servant with whom he had begun a relationship in 1745. By the time they were married the two had already had five children. Rousseau had neglected all his offspring, abandoning them at various orphanages.
The “Noble Savage.” Many philosophers of Rousseau’s day considered intellectual questions about the family and the individuals in it: What was a family like in a “state of nature,” a state of existence before civilization? How did mothers and fathers act? How were children raised? Deeply critical of his society, Rousseau believed that social and political inequalities corrupted people, claiming in On the Social Contract: “man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau argued that human government is a contract between the people who run the government and those who are governed by it. People enter the contract because life without government would be too difficult, and they expect the government to respect their individual rights while providing security and happiness.
On Childhood By the nineteenth century Rousseau’s philosophy of education was making a huge impact on literate Europeans’ perspectives of childhood and on the place of the child in the middle-class family. In his novel on education, Emile (1762), Rousseau criticized his society’s vision of children as small adults rather than seeing childhood as a separate stage of life in which children’s needs and passions are different from those of adults. “We know nothing of childhood,” he wrote. “The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know without asking what a child is capable of learning.” Rousseau was deeply influenced by British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), who argued that newborn children’s minds were like blank slates, and they learned everything— including morality and perceptions of good and evil— through sensory experience. Because the child is born naturally good and learns everything from sensory experience, Rousseau believed that mothers should play an active role in their children’s upbringing from birth to age five and should not send them to wet nurses. After a child turns five, a tutor should take over from parents, he argued. In Emile, Rousseau is represented by the tutor of a fictional orphan boy, Emile. Teacher and student share a solitary existence. Emile is not allowed to venture into society, for society—as well as friends, books, and religion—would corrupt him. When Emile turns twelve, the tutor teaches him reason, logic, and the trade of an artisan cabinetmaker so he can earn a living. At fifteen he is old enough to study history and begin social relationships. He is introduced to religion when he reaches eighteen, and he is finally allowed to enter society when he is twenty.
Sophie and Emile In Rousseau’s novel, Sophie, Emile’s future partner, is raised in the country as well. She is the perfect mate for Emile because she is from a well-off but unpretentious rural family. She is smart, but not too intelligent for Emile, and her skills lie in the domestic duties for which Rousseau believed women were naturally suited: sewing, cooking, and housekeeping. Rousseau believed that women wrongly dominated human life, and he criticized women in his society for their “false modesty” and “unnatural” control over men. He wrote that a woman’s natural sphere of influence was the home while a man’s was the government. Thus, Sophie’s only role in the novel is to obey and to please Emile. Emile is an excellent example of how Enlightenment philosophers, who were liberal in many regards, were often conservative in their views about relationships between men and women. While Enlightenment thinkers criticized many other aspects of European culture and society, they tended to consider the gender relations of their time natural and immutable.
Maurice Cranston, The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754–1762 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
Patrick Riley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).